At the center of this geopolitical drama was the ‘Sinotype’, a machine devised by Samuel Hawks Caldwell, the father of Chinese computing.
Caldwell was a man of many talents. Born in Massachusetts in 1904, he studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the renowned analog-computer designer Vannevar Bush, before becoming a pioneer in his own right in the field of logical circuits. When he wasn’t advising his students as a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, he enjoyed playing the organ, even making an occasional guest appearance with the Boston Pops.
One talent Caldwell could not claim was the ability to speak or read Chinese. His first exposure to the language came thanks to informal dinnertime chats with his overseas Chinese students at MIT. In between bites of stir fry and dumplings, Caldwell and his students got to talking about Chinese characters. One basic fact about the language caught the MIT engineer entirely by surprise: ‘Chinese has a “spelling”,’ as Caldwell later put it.
Having previously thought that Chinese calligraphy was subject to no orthographic laws, Caldwell soon discovered something to the contrary: ‘Strangely enough, it turns out that [the Chinese student] learns to write ideographic characters very much as his alphabetic brother learns to write words … Every Chinese learns to write a character by using exactly the same strokes in exactly the same sequence.’
As an expert on logical circuit design, the idea of consistent Chinese ‘spellings’ whetted Caldwell’s intellectual curiosity: if every Chinese character was composed in precisely the same way, might it be possible to design a logical circuit that, being fed such Chinese strokes as input data, outputted Chinese characters? If Chinese, despite being a non-alphabetic language, exhibited its own ‘spelling,’ might it be possible to build something that had eluded engineers for years: a computer for the Chinese language?
Caldwell sought the help of Lien-Sheng Yang, a professor of Far Eastern Languages at Harvard. Caldwell relied upon him to conduct a thorough analysis of the structural make-up of Chinese characters, and to determine the stroke-by-stroke ‘spelling’ of approximately 2,000 common-usage words. Caldwell and Yang ultimately settled upon 22 strokes in all: an ideal number to place upon the keys of a standard Western-style typewriter keyboard.
Instead of the QWERTY keyboard layout, Caldwell would outfit the keys of the Sinotype with Chinese brushstrokes, which the typist would use to compose—or more accurately to describe and retrieve—Chinese characters. In his own terms, Caldwell’s objective was ‘to furnish the input and output data required for the switching circuit, which converts a character’s spelling to the location coordinates of that character in the photographic storage matrix’.